A great book may be an accident, but a good one is a possibility, and it is thinking of that that one writes. In short, to achieve. The rest takes care of itself, and so much praise is given to insignificant things that there is hardly any sense in striving for it. In the end, writing is like a prison, an island from which you will never be released by which is a kind of paradise: the solitude, the thoughts, the incredible joy of putting into words the essence of what you want for the moment to understand and with your whole heart want to be believe.
The language still strikes me as a miracle, a thing the deepest mind adores. At its best, when you lose your arrogance and are least selfish, it can sing back to you almost as a disembodied friend. I think of the moments in Faulkner, Beckett, and Holy Scripture when the words seem absolutely final, bodiless, detached, as out of a cloud of huge necessity. My desire is to come even close to that team—to be that lucky, to be touched by such grace.
It’s impossible not to get to [the problem of memory] if you’re doing any kind of autobiographical writing and are the agent of its production, which you are. You’re the writer. Your memory is part of the project.
He had taken this incredibly complicated situation and made it into a story about his own valor. I think that those are the worst kinds of story to tell. Because those stories give you the illusion that it all makes sense, and they are not really helpful to anyone after-the-fact. I think especially with things like the natural world, I want to say, be careful with the stories that sand off all the rough edges to make some kind of pronouncement about things. I think when you can say this is what happened—it is absolutely true and maybe someone reading it recognizes something… maybe that is the most we can ask.
Those writers who speak for and with their age are able to do so with a great deal more ease and grace than those who speak counter to prevailing attitudes. I once received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up.
Many, many stories collapse because the writer is trying to make it easier on himself. Don’t do that. Serve the story. Writers are smart people facing a tough job. Writers are smart enough to figure out shortcuts, but you must avoid this impulse. There are no shortcuts in art.
I have a lot of problems with the way ‘realism’ is used in literature and criticism. I tend to think it is an ill-defined term, not a useful way to think of most fiction, and it spawns some of the worst criticism. ‘It didn’t feel realistic!’ is the go-to complaint for everyone from Amazon reviewers to undergrad workshoppers who didn’t bother to understand what a text was trying to do.
I remember having peers in workshop who couldn’t talk about non-realist work as anything other than satire. If you wrote a story about vacuum-pigs, you’d get comments like, ‘What is the vacuum-pig satirizing? What does the tower of sinks represent? I don’t get it!’
It’s not a very sane thing to try to be great all the time. You want to make something magical; you want to make something wonderful; you want to give to everybody; you want to heal people; you want to still be inspired. That’s not easy. I can cry myself to sleep because I’m not as great as Leonard Cohen, but who cares? Maybe you can’t be as great as some people, but it’s a tragedy when you don’t follow your dreams. So should I just shut the fuck up just because I’m not great? Or should I just do it because I must? It’s a complicated situation.
We have no other words to use. We know they don’t count but we lay them against the abyss anyway…
It’s very tricky to keep the two polarities of innovation and receptivity in mind when you’re writing a novel—because as soon as you start to innovate, you move further and further away from readership. Even though readers want something original, they don’t want it to be too ‘far out’ either—they aren’t looking for Finnegan’s Wake when they have been led to expect the accepted conventions of bestselling fiction.